Can You Beat Your Friends on This English Words Quiz?


By: Zoe Samuel

6 Min Quiz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

There is a very funny moment in the third season of Rowan Atkinson's hit sitcom " Blackadder" in which Dr. Johnson, the real-life historical figure who wrote what (he claimed) was the first comprehensive English language dictionary, tries to explain to the idiotic Prince Regent that it is a book about what English words mean. Prince George replies, "But I know what English words mean!" dismissing years of the good doctor's hard work. Johnson is outraged and the prince's potential patronage is thrown into question.

As stupid as the prince character is, a lot of people do seem to agree with him, that they know what English words mean thus don't need a book about it. However, Johnson was working at a time that the mere idea of English as an elevated, international language was considered silly. The British Empire was just starting up, Shakespeare's work was only 200 years old, and John Milton's "Paradise Lost" - which was written to put English on the map alongside that previous global lingua franca of Latin - hadn't turned 100 yet.

These days, English is the international language of choice; most internet traffic is written in it, and it outstrips Mandarin Chinese in the number of speakers worldwide. Everyone takes it seriously - and knowing a lot of its 200,000 words is simply part of being an educated person. How well do you know not just the language but the vocabulary of Shakespeare?

Which of these words means the form of a specific letter?

All the letters on this page are glyphs. Non-letters like hieroglyphs are, as their name suggests, glyphs. A glyph is a written or carved symbol that has a specific meaning.


Which of these words means the prong of a fork?

Forks have tines, which is a word that comes from the Germanic "Zinne" meaning pinnacle. A tine is a fixed metal part that sticks out from the main head of the fork. Forks may have as few as two or as many as four, typically speaking.


Which of these words means throwing someone out of a window?

"Fenetre" is the French for window, so defenestrating someone means shoving them out of a window. It can be very dangerous to try this on any floor above the first.


Which of these words means feeling content due to a tummy full of beer?

Gambrinus is a semi-mythical historical figure from Flanders or thereabouts, who loved a drink and is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a saint. Being gambrinous does not mean being drunk, merely being nicely merry and sated.


Which of these words means a slice of bacon?

A rasher is a thin slice of meat, usually used only to refer to bacon. Nobody's totally sure where it comes from but the word is at least four centuries old, proving that bacon has been appreciated for a long time.


Which of these words means excessive tooth grinding?

Bruxism comes from "brukhein", the Greek for gnashing of the teeth, plus the English suffix -ism. If you find yourself doing it too often, see a dentist!


Which of these words means giving off sparks?

Scintillating literally means giving off sparks, in the sense of a very hot piece of metal struck with another piece of metal. However these days it also means a smile, a witty remark, or occasionally a great personality.


Which of these words means a combination question mark and exclamation point?

The interrobang was invented in the 1960s as a portmanteau of the words "bang" (for the exclamation part) and "interrogate". It is not used much due to never making it onto the QWERTY keyboard.


Which of these words means the infinity symbol?

This word comes from the Greek and literally means "decorated with ribbons". The infinity symbol being a sideways 8 does look a lot like ribbons.


Which of these words means a bald person who people pity?

Pilling used to mean peeling, and garlic when peeled is very shiny. That's the origin of this word that does not just mean a bald person, but one who is viewed with contempt by virtue of being bald. Teasing people for baldness is a rather mean bullying tradition that goes back to the Bible.


Which of these words means a pointed shoe popular in the 1950s?

These days if you try to buy a winklepicker, you will end up with an ankle boot with a pointy toe. In the 1950s it was less boot-like, but it still had the same wonderfully expressive name.


Which of these words means a small quantity of something left over?

This comes from "tittle" meaning not very much, from the Latin titulus, and it's our favorite word today. Indeed, we truly struggled to winnow down the incredible offerings of the English language for this quiz, but this word was a shoe-in. We promise it's real.


Which of these words means very fat indeed?

Corpulent doesn't just imply fatness. It's a luxurious and extreme kind of fatness, that is like obesity but more expensively obtained (say, by eating an awful lot of foie gras instead of an awful lot of Kraft singles).


Which of these words means a person who never laughs?

An agelast might find something funny, but they don't laugh. Still, don't kid yourself that they're laughing on the inside, because they probably aren't.


Which of these words means a thing that induces nausea?

A nauseant is any agent that will make you feel sick if introduced into the area. For example, if you walk into a bathroom that hasn't been cleaned in a year, you could reasonably say that the air was full of nauseants.


Which of these words means a metal eyelet of firm material, usually metal, to reinforce a hole in fabric where it attaches to another piece?

A grommet is a stud or metal circle that reinforces the place where two pieces of fabric are joined. Typically you use it on hard leather and other materials that you cannot simply sew together without special equipment.


Which of these words means a person who steals books?

Klepto means to steal and biblio means a book. This is a Greek portmanteau word that literally means "book-stealer".


Which of these words means procrastinating, malingering or generally wasting time?

Lollygagging isn't just procrastinating or dithering. It means holding up other people and not getting things done, both at the same time, with an extra potential implied nuance of getting out of doing your fair share of the work. All in all, it's a fine descriptive word.


Which of these words means a grouchy person who finds fault with everything?

This word is not exactly an onomatopoeia (a word that literally sounds like what it is, such as pop or snap). However, if you heard it but did not know what it meant, the context and the sound of the word combined would certainly help. A curmudgeon is like Oscar the Grouch, a person who just finds something to be annoyed about no matter what.


Which of these words means highly un-wholesome, especially as appied to a person or neighborhood?

An insalubrious neighborhood is not just unsafe, it also means that it is dirty, poorly maintained, and probably ugly. This excellent word carries multiple nuances and is not pretentious, being instead a very good ten-dollar word to introduce into conversation.


Which of these words means the long tendril on a neuron that connects it to other neurons?

A dendrite is the long bit on a neuron (brain cell) that connects it to another neuron. The number of such connections is believed to be even more important to being able to think than how many actual neurons you have.


Which of these words means upset, bewildered and put off your game?

Discombobulation carries more than one nuance. Unlike flummoxed where you're merely puzzled, or upset where you are merely distressed, it combines the two, meaning you have to be confused, thrown off your game and in distress to be discombobulated.


Which of these words means a young upstart with ideas above their current skill set and experience?

A whippersnapper is a young person with confidence that is not justified by thier resume, usually characterized by irritating bragging and never admitting that they are wrong about anything. They generally tend to either grow out of it or somehow achieve elected office.


Which of these words means a sort of Victorian-era spork?

This word appears in a Lear poem from 1871 and it's pure nonsense - or it was. It has since become a sort-of real word. However these days "spork" is a much better word for a similar thing. The runcible spoon is Lear teasing his pal George Runcy.


Which of these words means a loud mix of horrible sounds?

"Phonics" meaning of or related to sound is the root here. The first syllable in this instance comes from the Greek "kakos" meaning bad. Hence, "bad sound" is the literal meaning.


Which of these words means a fuss or a bother, often applied as an understatement to a serious altercation?

Kerfuffle is actually a mix of the old Scots word car, meaning bend, and English fuffle meaning disordered. So a kerfuffle means that things have gone awry.


Which of these words means the worship of animals?

Just as idolatry is the worship of idols, zoolatry is the worship of animals. If you worship an idol that is shaped like an animal, it's really a judgment call which one you call this.


Which of these words means shady?

Umbra comes from the Latin for shadow, and is the root of umbrella, among other words. Umbriferous is something of a ten-dollar word and not to be used in ordinary conversation, as it might be pretentious.


Which of these words means having an orbit which passes close to the sun, as applied to a comet?

A comet that goes close to the sun is a sun-grazer. It's entirely self-explanatory. We put it here to trick you after some tough ones, so if you didn't fall for it, well done!


Which of these words means the process by which (in some theories) an object would be stretched and ripped apart by gravitational forces on falling into a black hole?

If you fall into a black hole, you get stretched really long, like spaghetti. It's a case of scientists realizing that not everything needs an obscure and impossibly unmemorable name. Sometimes they just call it like they see it.


Which of these words means plastic surgery performed on the nose?

"Rhino" means "of or relating to the nose". It's the same prefix as in the word "rhinoceros", an animal named for its giant schnozz. Hence, rhinoplasty = nose surgery.


Which of these words means able or ready to do anything?

Just as Pangaea was a continent with all the land and pansexual means attraction to male, female and everything in between, panurgic means being ready for anything. "Pan" is from the Greek for everything.


Which of these words means the hatred of marriage?

Just as monogamy means marrying one person, and misanthropy means disliking all people, "mis+ogamy" means hating marriage. It doesn't just mean hating your own marriage or a specific one though, it means hating marriage generally.


Which of these words means to chant or intone a passage of religious text?

Cantillating is like singing but it carries the specific tone of the church or temple. It comes from the Latin for song, and is related to cantor, cantata, etc.


Which of these means the death of cells which occurs as a normal part of an organism's growth or development?

Apoptosis is when a cell reaches the natural end of its life. It is a good thing; if cells do not die and just keep replicating, that is called cancer!


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